- Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England
Much has been written about the narratives of entitlement through which European-Americans, beginning with their first contacts with indigenous people, explained and justified their displacement of Native Americans. Following Roy Harvey Pearce and Robert Berkhofer, a significant number of scholars have helped to document the rhetorical strategies and maneuvers used to produce a unified national narrative that granted ownership of both the past and the future of the United States to its white occupants. In Firsting and Lasting, Jean M. O’Brien has extended that project in very productive and fascinating ways by examining the crucial local frameworks—primarily town histories—that contributed to the formation of the national narrative, nourished it, and allowed it to survive.
O’Brien has limited her study to southern New England, which made it possible for her to do an exhaustive study of extant local history sources for the area, most of them produced in the middle of the nineteenth century. Her research has unearthed ample evidence, remarkable in the sheer number of examples, that local New England communities set out to convince themselves and others that “their” Indians not only were unfit for citizenship in the present and future of the United States but that they had, in fact, become extinct by the time of the writing of the history. O’Brien organizes her study by grouping the sources into several categories: “firsting” narratives, that document local history by enumerating a series of first institutions or practices created by whites; “lasting” narratives, that select out individual Indians, some of them still living, and mark them as the last of their tribe—such as Squanto, whom O’Brien describes as “the first last Indian, but . . . decidedly not the last” (108); and “replacement” narratives, whose rhetorical strategies allowed whites to claim indigeneity for themselves and to assert their authority over Indian places. The work of these “replacement” narratives was to set in place a version of Indian history, often enshrined in place names, while insisting that the Indian people themselves were gone for good. O’Brien’s documentation of these narrative patterns is scrupulous and persuasive; the examples she cites are also intrinsically interesting. In their local specificity, they humanize the larger, national narrative, bringing it into clearer focus and helping to locate its origins in the intellectual and cultural work done by particular individuals and communities.
The reshaping of Indian biographies is an important part of the process O’Brien describes. Local historians might be eager to claim certain Indians as their own, but those Indians were, in a remarkably consistent pattern, [End Page 856] represented as inevitably the victims of change and never the agents of change. One way of reinforcing the claim that Indians and their cultures were moribund or already extinct was to associate them, in written histories and in displays and commemorations, with artifacts, relics, and burials. In general, O’Brien argues, the point of writing an Indian life was to deny that life access to modernity. At times, the undeniable physical presence of living Indians in local communities had the effect of confounding the “lasting” and “replacement” narratives, and could even lead, as O’Brien points out, to almost comic confusions and contradictions in the local narratives. She has even found accounts of commemoration ceremonies at which Indians from the area were invited to sit on the ceremonial platform while local orators eulogized the now-extinct Native tribes. We will probably never know, O’Brien suggests, how the Indians on the platform received the news of their extinction.
O’Brien concludes her study with a forceful accounting of Native resistance to these narratives that intended to write the New England Indians out of existence. Indians continued living and working in small communities throughout the very period when their extinction was being inscribed in the local histories; they adapted in many ways to the changes around them, entering the market economy and refusing to be...